Various, Dimension Mix (Eenie Meenie)

Various - Dimension Mix Various
Dimension Mix
Eenie Meenie
By: Eric Greenwood

In the early '60's experimental electronic composer Bruce Haack teamed up with children's dance teacher Hanna Nelson to create educational music for kids. Their Dance, Sing & Listen series was ubiquitously used in grammar schools throughout the decade, despite its low-budget production. Haack could turn practically any household contraption into a synthesizer of some degree, and he haphazardly rigged together a studio full of homemade modulators and tonal manipulators.

With modest success the duo created its own record label, Dimension 5, to facilitate the series. With Haack utilizing his electronic compositional training, he and Nelson created an alternate universe for kids to experience, understand, and appreciate not only music but also myriad educational subjects in a catchy, easy to learn environment.
Haack wrote understandably simplistic music full of innocence and wide-eyed wonder, though his penchant for found-sound improvisation tapered its universal appeal. Nelson's bizarrely random lyrics were the perfect foil to Haack's determination to challenge young minds.

This impetus of this compilation is twofold: it's a tribute to Haack's and Nelson's almost-forgotten contribution to music as well as a fundraiser for the Cure Autism Now foundation, featuring a truly diverse roster of artists, many of whom very probably grew up with the Dance, Listen & Sing series. Beck takes great liberties with “Funky Lil' Song”, turning it into a 60's pop gem with a cast of vocal characters he intones at whim, including his infamous, soul-fried falsetto. Stereolab is equally liberal with its interpretation of “Mudra”, taking its repetitive core to new extremes, adding layers of noodling blips and flutters.

On the down side, Fantastic Plastic Machine's “I'm Bruce” sucks the life and spontaneity out of the original with its relentless over sampling, not to mention the fact that Nelson's clever witticisms get completely squashed. For the most part, however, the soul of Haack's and Nelson's songs remains, particularly in Oranger's power pop perfect version of “Catfish.”

Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (Sony)

Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine Fiona Apple
Extraordinary Machine
By: Eric Greenwood

So, it turns out that Fiona Apple's now notorious Extraordinary Machine was never really shelved by Sony, but, since there was such a public outcry on her behalf, Apple was too embarrassed to admit that the delay was mainly a result of her own laziness. Apple was simply in no hurry to shove her mug back into the limelight. It is true, however, that Sony sort frowned perplexingly at the Jon Brion version of Extraordinary Machine, but it was Apple's own dissatisfaction that prompted the actual re-recording.

I'm not going to compare and contrast the two versions of the albums, except to say that Apple made the right decision in deciding it wasn't good enough in its original form. Brion's busy, string-heavy production blurred too many of Apple's edges, which Mike Elizondo does a masterful job of reinstating. He focuses on the beats and Apple's vocal ticks and nuances, as opposed to gussying up what doesn't need any dressing.

Apple's typically bleary-eyed delivery has an unexpected jovial bounce on the opening, title track. Buoyed by Brion's cinematic strings and playful beats, the throwback Tin Pan Alley feel of "Extraordinary Machine" betrays Apple's gossamer pathos that she feverishly promulgated on her first two records. It's a weirdly intriguing way to end a six-year hiatus, to say the least.

As the album progresses it's clear that Apple's cheery demeanor was just a ruse. Her sunken huskiness returns on the plaintive "O' Sailor"- a tugging, lamenting ballad that recalls the listless brilliance of her debut, Tidal. The anger that brimmed on her sophomore album, When The Pawn…, rears its head on "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song), wherein Apple wants to bleed herself dry just to get over a relationship. That sort of Plath-like hyperbole plays perfectly into Apple's unpredictable mania.

Apple has frequently bitten off more than she can chew lyrically, often sounding like a little girl with far too sophisticated problems for her age, her pubescent rape notwithstanding, but her feistiness and gushing talent have always balanced the incongruity. Now that her age has caught up with her angst, her songs seem to have more weight, as the bi-polar thunder of "Not About Love" clearly demonstrates. She makes it difficult to be patronizing. She's clever and sharp with her lyrical daggers, and she's frighteningly aware of the impact of her own voice.

The Darkness, One Way Ticket To Hell…And Back (Atlantic)

The Darkness - One Way Ticket To Hell…And Back The Darkness
One Way Ticket To Hell…And Back
By: Eric Greenwood

The Darkness’ over-the-top, winking hair metal send-up amassed an unpredictable following with its debut, Permission to Land, thrusting the English quartet to international fame on the heels of the blistering “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” single. And yet, despite all the millions of albums sold worldwide, the band still has to fight to avoid being tossed aside as just another jokey, one-trick pony clogging up the airwaves.

The band’s reaction for its sophomore effort is to pile on the histrionics, up the production costs, and force as many vocal overdubs into its songs as any band has ever dared. And with Justin Hawkins’ polarizing falsetto- that’s a lot to expect, even of the most giving listener. Expectedly, One Way Ticket to Hell…and Back lacks the novelty and charm of Permission to Land, so The Darkness tries to outdo itself with sonic over-indulgence and hilarious, note-for-note mimicry of every 80’s metal cliché fathomable.

Roy Thomas Baker’s crystalline production certainly adds the operatic schmaltz reminiscent of his work with Queen, but The Darkness’ penchant for cheesy power metal anthems negates much of the sonic wizardry with too many half-baked ideas. Hawkins’ falsetto still sounds frighteningly odd and jarring when it explodes in each chorus, but it lacks the laugh-out-loud absurdity of anything on Permission to Land. And it’s not a case of the band suddenly trying to take itself seriously, either, as songs like “Knockers” and “Bald” easily attest.

The weird thing is, without Hawkin’s ridiculous vocals, most of these songs would have been sure-fire hits, if only they’d been released twenty years ago. In today’s market, however, it can attain little more than a well-executed-joke status- and one that’s fading fast. And I cannot imagine the band could pull any of this pomposity off live. The strings, the flute solos, the multi-tracked to oblivion vocals- it’s all just too much, especially if it's just for a laugh.

The Pit That Became A Tower, Behold! The Unseen (Men Of Israel)

The Pit That Became A Tower - Behold! The Unseen The Pit That Became A Tower
Behold! The Unseen
Men Of Israel
By: Kerry M

Profits (of the non-financial sort), Kings, Salvation and Faith pervade the lyrics of Behold! The Unseen from The Pit That Became a Tower, the sonic outlet for singer/songwriter Adam Lee Rosenfeld, an American Messianic Jew living in Israel.

The Pit That Became a Tower play the kind of indie rock that permeated the college radio airwaves of late '80s and early '90s. Rosenfeld likely spent many an hour with lo-fi bedroom rockers Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, et al. cranked to 11 whilst pouring over the pages of Book Your Own Fucking Tour or perhaps the less heathenly titled The Musician's Home Recording Handbook. As such, there is a definite Pollard-esque tinge to Rosenfeld's vocals, particularly on tracks like Of Lying Lions and the pure pop bliss of the opener, Great Grandfather Alarm Clock, which clocks in at a mere 2 minutes and masterfully employs male/female harmonizing over Mascis-like riffs.

Several of the even shorter tracks from Behold! The Unseen, including The Fifth Beatle, Between Fools (and Kings) and the title track Behold! The Unseen show flickerings of the patented sub two minute GBV/Tall Dwarfs variety and work well as interstitials between the more traditional verse chorus verse numbers. Unfortunately, King Wrong and The Pit That Became a Tower both exceed the 7 minute mark and begin to devolve into a bit of self-indulgent “influences on sleeve” wankery that typically works live, but rarely in recordings.

The success of labels like Tooth&Nail and acts like Sufjan Stevens and to a lesser extent Brother Danielson (and his Sounds Familyre famile) has certainly paved the way for a greater acceptance of Christian-tinged* indie rock and Behold! The Unseen, both an homage to a time and a place, definitely has the potential to introduce the sub-genre to a wider audience.

See Also: The Pit That Became a Tower